Aloha? Oy!

Trader Vic is gone, but his Mai Tai spirit lives on in Seattle.

Tiki is back. Back like lounge music, Americana, and swank. My generation's well-developed appreciation for kitsch has led us to believe that drinks taste better with miniature umbrellas in them. We're looking for a more adult, sophisticated bar experience, yet we're still young enough to be suckers for a theme party. And what are tiki bars if not one big theme party? Tiki drinks transform mere beverages into Events, and tiki lounges open a fanciful doorway to primitive pleasure. The Mai Tai, mother of all tiki cocktails, was born at Trader Vic's in San Francisco, but the Pacific Northwest offers many places to indulge the tiki fetish: far more than my native New York, whose only two tiki lounges are watered down by comparison to Seattle's four, and that's not counting local Hawaiian restaurants. First stop on the island hop is the Islander, where an après-work crowd drains tiki mugs like they're a vacation in a glass. What can you do with a Drunken Sailor? At the Islander, you drink it (and it costs $8). This spot has post–World War II tiki style down pat, with enough retro travel posters to transport you to old-time days of island romance. The atmosphere works better than the food, which is a little bland. One notable exception is the chili squid pupu ($6), a downright terrific homage to Pele, goddess of fire. Extinguish the flames with signature cocktails like the Head Hunter ($7.50). Sipping passion fruit daiquiris ($8) alongside beautiful views of the water, maybe you'll forget it's Elliott Bay. At the other end of the spectrum, ship portal windows pave the way to the darker side of tiki at the divey Lava Lounge in Belltown. The hand-carved wooden head of an ominous tiki warrior promises a shipwrecked, rustic experience, like Gilligan's Island gone badass. The South Pacific wall mural features an erupting volcano. A shark jaw reveals a human hand tucked inside. This old-school tiki joint has a rugged 1940s feel—Bloody Mary and her sailors would be right at home (except for the anachronistic Jr. Pac-Man game). Drinks are strong and cheap. You can order a $2 Pabst off the chalkboard, but keep it simple: If you ask for a tropical drink menu, they'll look at you funny. Dark and crowded, Lava Lounge is basically a standard bar with tiki decor. A hand version of shuffleboard (rentals $1) lends an extra dose of Hawaii fun. More upscale tiki restaurant than mere lounge, Luau in Wallingford (under new management) is the classiest of the bunch and also has the best food. The pupu platter ($15.50), served on a flaming lazy Susan, is a crowd pleaser with linguiça sausage, shrimp potstickers, steak skewers, and mouthwatering braised bok choy. The spicy ahi poke pupu ($8.50) is a flavorful favorite, and Shaggy's jerk chicken ($14.40) with annatto seed and banana salsa satisfies the craving for island soul food. At Luau's bamboo bar, intrepid couples brave the Zombie for Two ($15) and sip luscious piña coladas ($6) from faux coconut shells. Genuinely friendly service contributes to the spirit of aloha. Another tiki-fied favorite is not in Seattle but in Kirkland: Waimea Brewing Company has a main location in Kauai. How they chose the former site of the Roaster for their one mainland branch is anyone's guess, but be glad they did. This surfer's paradise has one of the smoothest Lava Flows (piña colada with fresh strawberry puree, $5.25) ever tasted, plus five house-made brews with names like South Pacific Brown. The breezy space is beach-casual, with palm trees, tiki torches, a ukulele— everything but Elvis. The menu is more pub food than island fare, but the sublime pulled kalua pig, available as an entrée ($16.95), sandwich ($10.95), even atop a heaping pile of Nui Nachos ($10.95), makes up for it. There's even a respectable haupia (Hawaiian coconut pudding, $4.95). The outdoor patio's view of Lake Washington is a treat in summer. Alas, the only thing remotely tiki about Tiki Bob's Cantina in Pioneer Square is its name—and the fact that everyone there is looking to get lei'd. It bills itself as Hula Heaven, but it's more like a frat sports bar/dance club on spring break. "Tiki Favorites" on the menu (which also features such Polynesian delights as spaghetti with meatballs) turn out to be chicken wings ($7). 'Nuff said. Back in Belltown, Ohana seems to have a split personality. Is it a tiki lounge? Is it a sushi bar? The answer to both is yes, and Ohana pulls it off. The thatched-roof tiki bar features a clever drink menu with classics like Da Lime in Da Coconut and Wasabi Bloody Mary ($7.50). Even the Spam Musubi (basically Spam sushi, $4.95) is cute. Giant, crepelike lumpia pupus ($5.95) and the Oh So Ono Coconut Prawns ($6.95) stand out. Live island music plays on Wednesday nights, and be sure to save your tab: It entitles you to a discount at the local Hawaii General Store in Wallingford, where real island exiles shop away their homesickness. Suddenly the South Seas are not so far away after all. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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